Meet Herdís Stefánsdóttir

The musician and composer is creating the soundtrack for HBO’s new drag-themed show, We’re Here

By Tom Reardon, May 2020 issue.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a name you need to know even if it is a bit of a mouthful for the average American. While the 32-year-old composer and musician currently lives in Los Angeles, with her boyfriend, Dustin O’Halloran, who is also a composer and their 15-month-old daughter, Ísold Aurelia, Stefánsdóttir is from Reykjavik, Iceland and at the time of our discussion, was hoping to get back to her native country as soon as possible.

It’s a hectic time for Stefánsdóttir in our world of social distancing. She’s hard at work on the musical score for a new HBO show, We’re Here, which is set to begin broadcasting on the cable giant on April 23 of this year but would like to get home to Iceland if her flights will just stop being canceled. She’s also got a toddler to think of, but fortunately O’Halloran is able to take over much of the day-to-day parenting duties while she creates music for her first TV show. To say it’s been a whirlwind for the talented Icelandic talent is an understatement, but it also seems that she is just getting started.

While Stefánsdóttir’s name is not quite synonymous with epic movie and tv scores just yet, it probably will be soon. If you saw 2019’s The Sun is Also a Star then you have heard her beautiful, haunting work. In the past four years, she has worked on several short films, two features, gotten her MFA from New York University and had a child. Prior to taking the leap as a composer, she was also part of an acclaimed electronic duo, East of My Youth, which released a number of music videos and an EP, West of My Future ltd., in 2017.

The future is truly in the palm of Stefánsdóttir’s capable hands. We sat down with the pianist for a long phone chat just days after our world was, for lack of a better expression, told to just stay home.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir. Photo by Ugla Hauks.

Echo: Strange times. It feels weird to be talking about a TV show.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir: It’s very existential.

That’s a great way of putting it. It seems like everyone in Phoenix has become a hoarder. Is it the same in LA?

It seems like it. I think so. At least it looks like it. It seems like shelves are empty everywhere in the world.

At what age did you figure out music would be the path for you?

Pretty late, honestly. You always hear about people doing music at the age of five or something, but it wasn’t like that at all for me. I studied the piano from the age of eight, but it was always just something I did on the side. Like a hobby, even though I was always very musical and really loved music. I went to high school and was always focused on very practical things like, maybe I will be a doctor or a lawyer or, you know, something that will earn me money.

That was the focus I was taking. I actually started studying law when I was 20 years old. It didn’t fit me at all. I was very miserable. To a profound level, I was miserable. I really hated it. That is when I started playing the piano a lot and started writing music. I was 21 years old and hadn’t really written any music before. That was a surprise. I was like, “Whoa!” I didn’t know I could do that. I started teaching myself and studying (music) theory and music history and doing it as a hobby. I wrote a choir piece for my grandmother’s choir and started teaching myself how to arrange music, like string quartets.

It wasn’t until my friend, who was studying at the Art Academy in Iceland, told me that you could study music composition and I was like, “What, you can? That’s cool!” I didn’t know you could do that, but I decided to apply to art school, and I got in. So that’s how it started, but I was always telling myself that you can’t make a living doing music and this was just a hobby and I’ll just try this out and go back to law school or whatever and then that never happened.

You’re very fortunate to have been able to take that leap of faith and you were blessed with some talent, too.

It’s really strange. You can’t really escape it. In my case, I was always trying to, because I didn’t really believe there was something I could do or spend my life doing, I was constantly trying to have the backup plan of doing something more practical, but (my music) kept growing and becoming a bigger part of my life and I just kept doing it. I guess that is what ultimately led me to the path of being a composer.

When you started to write your own songs, was it like people always say about the proverbial floodgates opening?

Yes, it was. I would go to classes in the morning and I would come home and just play the piano and study music on my own. It was probably a year of studying music on my own, reading books, and trying to figure things out. It was just pure passion because I loved it and I got really into it.

You were part of a group at one point, correct? East of My Youth?

Yes, we were a duo.

Is that still going on?

No, it’s not going on. I’ve been focusing the last year on my first solo record.

Do you like collaborating with others or do you prefer to work alone?

Both. (Laughs).

It’s a tough question.

It is a tough question, but I felt like it was important for me to start doing things on my own. I wanted the challenge. As a composer, it’s kind of funny to now be in a quarantine, because it is the same. You’re always alone. Sometimes it can be so refreshing and inspiring to work with other friends and collaborate and you learn a lot from it, so I definitely prefer to mix both approaches.

What was your first opportunity to work on a film score?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Iceland, I did some short films and I worked in theater, too, and I worked with dancers.  This was a kind of thing I was experimenting with and then I did my masters at New York University and that was emphasized in film scoring. There I worked with a lot of directors and did some short films, as well.

Growing up, did you pay attention to the music in film before you decided to go down that path?

Oh, yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. I love film. I love cinema. (Music) is such a big part of cinema.

What do you think makes a good film score?

It needs to tell a story. It’s so different for every film because they all have completely different aesthetics and there are so many different approaches to making a film. You might make a film where you want to make the score in front and the score has a voice and it stands out and then another filmmaker might want the score to be almost invisible and weave in with the story. I think it is hard to say that there is one way of having a great score.

What is your process like as you work on (new HBO real life series) We’re Here?

I watched the first episode and started thinking about what I can add to it and how I can make music that adds an extra dimension and maybe makes it special. I try to think outside of the box and think about how this is an unscripted reality series and what can we do to bring out the emotion and heart without being cheesy or going into a cliché.

There is constantly new ideas and new characters that are coming so I think it is a bit different than writing music for a fictional series where you’re developing scenes that already have a storyline or a plot. Each episode (of We’re Here) is independent and every episode has different stories. This is the first time I am working on a tv show, so I am just learning something new every day.

Were your familiar drag culture prior to working on the show?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a big fan of drag. I’m very into RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Is that part of what drew you to being interested in working on the show?

I had no idea what it was really about until I watched it, so I think what really drew me into being excited to work on it is that I think it is very important and I think it is a beautiful show and it’s funny and I think it touches on a subject within drag that maybe hasn’t been shown. RuPaul’s (show) has all the drama and entertainment but this is the real story behind the people that have maybe been alienated in society and each one has gone through their own struggles to come to the ultimate path of having the confidence to go into drag. I think it’s interesting and a new perspective.

The show starts soon, correct?

Yes, this is happening in real time. I’m going to be writing music while the first episodes are still airing.

Wow. Do you enjoy working that way?

(Pauses) I can’t say that it’s pure enjoyment to be under the gun and creating music, but you definitely get into good shape. You get into good musical shape.

I bet. I assume you’ve worked with deadlines before, but …

Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is just a different type of deadline because every time you’re finishing something there is a new episode coming in and new things are happening in the stories. This is a new experience for me. I’m just taking it day by day.

As you get to know the stories and the people in them, do you get a feel or a theme for each person?

Yes. It is starting to happen like that. This is how the sound is evolving, I feel. Maybe there is a new story or a new character that comes in and I’m like, “Hmmn. Wait. This guy or this girl, they need this …” and there are definitely new sounds emerging through the episodes. A lot of the themes I’m writing can be reused because they can also fit to something else, too.

It’s funny because I’ve never written guitar music and it’s not an instrument I’ve used a lot, but maybe I’m working on the show and I think, “Well, this dude, he needs some electric guitar. That’s just what he needs, and I need to do that.” So, it’s also kind of interesting for me to explore with instruments and things that I would not normally use in my own music.

What would you like to do next?

I would like to do a dark project. My own music is pretty dark. It’s a different type of expression to work like that. I would be interested in doing something completely different that would take me down a different road. I’m putting that out in the universe. Not that the world needs more darkness, I mean, God, not now, but maybe next year when we are all feeling better again, we can produce more dark shit (laughs).

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